Hell, no! Nevaaaaaargh! I’ve just been marvellously slack in writing about what I’ve been reading. See, my inner masochist had a major breakdown after I graduated (NO THESIS?!?! BUT HOW WILL I KEEP MYSELF IN A CONSTANT STATE OF HAIR-CHEWING ANXIETY??), and I promptly set myself an August 31 deadline for the first draft of the novel I’m working on. No external party gives a shit whether I make this deadline or not, but I’ve managed to convince myself the world WILL IMPLODE if I don’t make it. So I’ve been writing that instead.
But I would forego sleep entirely before I gave up reading. And I have read some absolute GEMS over the past little while. I really do still have an awful lot of work to do on my book, and the whole world literally rests on my finishing the first draft on time, so I’m not going to write full reviews of everything, but I just had to share a little something on each.
If you haven’t yet read Meg Wolitzer, then what the fuck have you been reading? This woman is incredible. As in, I haven’t been this excited about an author since I first read Donna Tartt. Wolitzer is appearing at the Melbourne Writers Festival (!!!) and The Interestings (2013) is one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time. Get. On. It.
Sleepwalking doesn’t have the same breadth and depth as The Interestings, but Wolitzer was still in college when she wrote it. So, prepare to be depressed by her precocious awesomeness. It’s like the whole Eleanor Catton and The Rehearsal situation, only worse.
At a small, prestigious university, three students stand out. They wear black, they avoid sunlight and they stay up all night reading the work of their favourite suicidal poets. Everyone calls them the Death Girls. But while the Death Girls appear to have simply let their morbid obsession with their favourite poets (and their untimely demise) go a little too far, for their unofficial leader, Claire, it’s about much more than romanticising death and morbid affectations.
Sleepwalking is a surprisingly nuanced exploration of grief and healing, and a dark and emotionally raw take on the coming-of-age narrative.
I have an entire bookshelf in my study devoted to classics, and I’m slowly working my way through them. The Woman in White has been on that shelf for years. It’s brilliant, but, fuck, it’s long. I know people with creative writing PhDs shouldn’t say things like that (what, only 600 pages in type so small I’ll need a freaking magnifying glass to read it? JOY!), but I’m a child of the digital age and reading ten page descriptions of how Walter Hartwright spent four years travelling the two miles from London to Limmeridge to pay his respects or whatever* was a tad tiring in what would otherwise be a suspenseful thriller.
The plot is genius. A poor art master wants to marry a rich heiress, but she’s engaged to some scumbag aristocrat. There’s an escaped madwoman who dresses all in white and bears an uncanny resemblance to the heiress and knows the aristocrat harbours a terrible secret. The heiress also has a plain but sharp-witted half-sister and there’s an evil Italian count. Much scheming, identity confusion, fainting and moustache twirling ensues. It’s fabulous.
Marian Halcombe, the bright half-sister, is right up there with Jane Eyre as far as 19th century heroines go, and her chapters are full of wit and suspense. However, the art master (Walter) and the heiress (Laura) are two of the most drippy, insufferable characters I’ve ever encountered. They are meant to be, but having Walter as a narrator is about as interesting as reading a computer instruction manual. Not even. Still, I’m glad I persisted and am peachy keen to read The Moonstone, which friends tell me is even better (and probably where I should have started in my Collins reading adventures).
This was our July book club read, but I wish I’d read it much sooner, like in late high school or early uni. That’s not an insult to Kundera—it’s a terribly clever book. Funny, too, in places. It ponders the big questions about the meaning of life and love (or their lack thereof) and how we cope with the knowledge of our own insignificance.
For me, these kind of existentialist musings were fun to discuss in earnest over cheap wine at the uni bar, when life in the real world was still something remote. These conversations always made me feel terribly sophisticated and smug, as though discovered a great secret. After all, it’s not everyone that takes philosophy one-oh-one. Life’s meaning or lack of meaning was an abstract question and love was an exciting game in which there was not yet much at stake.
A decade later, I’m not anticipating and theorising about adult life, I’m living it. And love? Love is a high stakes venture. My lack of faith in fate and soul mates doesn’t make me feel clever or smug, only a little melancholy and nostalgic for the days when it did. Or maybe Melbourne winter is just bloody depressing as it is and I was in no mood for literature designed to provoke an existential crisis.
Also, I got the impression that Kundera had had sex with a lot of women, but hadn’t ever had a conversation with one before he wrote The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
That said, it made for a heated book club discussion over some very excellent wine.
E. Lockhart is one of my favourite YA authors (if you haven’t yet, check out The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks) and I was jumping-out-of-my-reading-chair excited to hear she’d written a novel about a group of bright young things who call themselves the Liars and spend their summers on a private island, where two summers ago there was an accident nobody talks about.
It’s hard to say much more without giving the game away, but if you like your YA fiction smart, dark and preppy as hell (and I do, I really, really do), then you will LOVE this. There is a twist, and for some readers it won’t be the shocking revelation Lockhart hopes, but even if you pick it on page one, We Were Liars is still a wonderfully decadent read, and Shakespeare fans will appreciate the King Lear parallels.
Finishing off with something fun, Rainbow Rowell is another favourite YA author, and after reading Eleanor and Park, I had to see what else she had up her sleeve.
Cath and her twin sister Wren are starting their first year of college, but while Wren easily slips into a heady party lifestyle, Cath wishes they were still as close as they’d been as kids and that they hadn’t left for college at all.
Cath also writes some of the most popular Simon Snow fan fiction on the internet, and with the final Simon Snow book out in less than a year, she doesn’t have much time to finish her version of the story for her readers before the canon ending is set. And that doesn’t leave her much time for making new friends.
You can probably see where this is going: Cath is so busy writing her way into someone else’s story, she forgets to live her own. And yes, there is a love interest and quirky sidekicks to boot, and, yes, you can probably pick how it ends from Chapter One, but sometimes that’s okay (and doesn’t feel cliche, either). And Rowell is a fucking excellent writer: witty and warm. Fangirl is absolutely perfect reading material for a miserable winter weekend when all you want is to curl up by the heater with a hot chocolate and a good book.